The Varied and Colourful Tribes of Odisha
The state of Odisha is home to some of the most beautiful and historic temples in the country, with an abundance of picturesque nationals parks and wildlife, a strong legacy of classical music and dances, distinctive and intricate handicrafts and at the heart of the state – its ancient and magnificent tribal culture.
This blog post is a tribute to all that Odisha’s tribes have contributed to India.
The Saura Tribe
While admiring the handicraft shops and visiting the beautifully adorned temples, do not forget to drive down to Rayagada, a southern city in Odisha, to visit the villages of the Saura tribe.
The Saura tribe is the oldest and one of the more prominent tribes of Orissa. Sometimes referred to as Sora or Savara, this tribe has often been mentioned in Sanskrit literature, the Puranas, and more. Over time, the tribe has spread widely across the states of Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and West Bengal.
Traditionally, members of the Saura Tribe were distinguished by the way they dress, with men wearing a simple pastel coloured loincloth and occasionally, a necklace of beads. The traditional dress of a woman is a knee length skirt and a piece of shawl-like cloth for the upper body. Women in the Saura Tribe are known to adorn themselves with piercing and jewellery.
However, in modern times, men have switched over to dhotis and women to sarees.
Polygyny and the Saura Tribe
Marriage is an interesting but simple affair in this tribe, where polygyny – a form of polygamy where a man can marry multiple women – is widely prevalent.
According to the Saura, if a person has more fields to clear, he can have several wives, as each wife can clear a patch of land, which eventually improves the economic condition of the family. Remarriage of widows, widowers, and divorcees is also permitted in their society.
Unlike any other Hindu sub-culture and fair to both genders, they also
practise sororate and levirate forms of marriage, i.e., a man can marry his deceased
wife’s younger sister and a woman can marry her deceased husband’s younger brother.
The Dongria Kondh Tribe
The Niyamgiri Hills in Odisha are home to the Dongria Kondh tribe and they’re well-known for having saved their habitat and self-sufficient way of life.
This tribe has been in news since 2014 when it won its battle against Vedanta, a U.K.-based business conglomerate that was to start the mining of bauxite in the Niyamgiri hills, thus defying the stereotype that surrounds most tribal groups as ‘backward and incompetent’.
To be a Dongria Kondh is to house and farm the hills’ fertile slopes and worship the mountain god, Niyam Raja. The tribe believes they are protected by a supreme deity who is the God of the mountains, and also deeply revere Dharni, the Earth Goddess.
For sustenance, the tribe practices shifting cultivation. From the forests, they gather wild foods such as wild mango, pineapple, jackfruit, and honey. They also grow crops such as oranges, bananas, ginger, sweet papaya and the aromatic resin jhunu, all of which are sold at local markets.
The Dongria Kondh Tribe also has an intriguing marriage custom – while they choose their life partners, they cannot marry within the clan. Also, much like contemporary bridal ceremonies, Dongria Kondh brides are also bathed in haldi water before the wedding.
Perhaps most interesting is that dowry works the other way round! The groom’s family gives money and liquor (salpa, made from the sap of a tree) to the girl’s family as a wedding gift.
The Bonda Tribe
When you’re in Odisha, make sure you take the time for an excursion to visit the Ondukeli Tribal Market where the Bonda Tribe sells its wares and handmade goods.
One of the oldest tribes in Odisha, the Bonda people are believed to be a part of the first wave of migration out of Africa, approximately 60,000 years ago.
In fact, the Bonda Tribe are the first foragers to settle in India and are extremely protective of their land. If you’re planning on visiting Bonda Ghati, make sure you have the right permissions ahead of time.
They have a unique dressing style—women are semi-clad and wear various types of rings and necklaces around their bodies, while the men carry lethal bows and arrows.
And interestingly enough, Bonda women don’t grow their hair, and that custom has a fascinating story behind it.
It is believed that when Lord Rama, and his wife Devi Sita, visited Sitakunda, in Mudulipada, a handful of Bonda women laughed at Sita as she was bathing in the Kund.
Their laughter made Sita furious and she cursed the Bonda women. According to tribal folklore, it’s because of that curse that the women lost their beauty and won’t grow their hair. Although, when one engages with the Bonda tribe, we see how clearly that the way they dress is a deep reflection of their ancient culture, tradition, and beliefs.
However, times are changing – every subsequent generation allows itself to be forgiven and you might find women or little girls who don’t swear by Sita’s legend.
Their most unique characteristic of the Bonda Tribe is that it is a matriarchal society. The women prefer to marry men who are younger by at least 5-10 years so that the men can earn for them when they grow old.
In totality, Odisha is home to 62 tribes. In addition to the three mentioned above, the other significant tribes as the Kondhs, the Koyas, the Gadabas, the Juangs, and the Santals.
The tribal people of Odisha celebrate their lives through dance, music, and paintings, live off the land around them, deeply revere it, and stay in rhythm with the stunning natural beauty around them.
Believe us when we say that every interaction with Odisha’s tribes has taught us about the power and beauty of living with simplicity and long-held values.